Politics & Government

Employee raises, public safety and presidential election highlight 2020 county budget

The Wichita Eagle

Every employee of Sedgwick County will get a 2.25 percent raise – and some will get more – under the proposed 2020 spending plan unveiled Wednesday by County Manager Tom Stolz.

Highlights of the annual budget include proposed increases in spending and/or employees for the mental health department, public safety, the election office and senior services.

Overall, the spending plan encompasses $437 million for county government, plus another $20 million for the county Fire District No. 1.

Although that’s a 3.2 percent spending increase over this year, the property tax mill rate will decline slightly, from 29.383 mills to 29.359, according to the budget. The mill rate for the fire district is proposed at 18.131 mills, a slight decrease.

The county started out in a $3 million to $4 million hole because the state Legislature cut mortgage registration fees that had been going to counties statewide.

But county government benefited from a generally improving economy and increases in property valuation, Stolz said.

That has allowed proposed increases in several key budget areas.

Employee raises

The budget proposes a 2.25 percent raise for all employees, plus an additional 1.25 percent for certain jobs that have been underpaid and hard to fill.

One example of a job that needs higher pay is answering the county’s suicide hotline, a low-wage and high stress job that has seen heavy turnover, Stolz said.

The county has an annual allowance for research through Wichita State University’s mill levy and will use part of that to identify other jobs that need a pay boost to stabilize the positions, said Lindsay Poe Rousseau, the county’s chief financial officer.

Mental health

Comcare, the county’s mental health department, will get the most new employees of any department, a net total of five positions.

Comcare is proposed to hire six new workers for the Community Crisis Center, the 24-7 team that serves people in an immediate mental health or behavioral crisis.

“The call for those types of services is increasing for a number of social reasons,” Stolz said.

The extra staffing will cost about $362,000. The department is eliminating an analyst position, which will save about $63,000.

Public safety

The emergency communications office is proposed to receive a $3 million increase for its computer-aided dispatch and record systems, plus the equivalent of three new employees, two full-time quality improvement specialists and two part-time dispatchers.

Emergency management will get a $15,000 boost in its budget for storm warning sirens. Stolz said those proved their value during the recent rough weather. “We want to make sure we keep those pristine and in working order,” he said.

The sheriff’s office will see increased funding of about $350,000 to keep up with the rising cost of food and medical services for jail inmates. One new position will be a forensic investigator who will analyze the contents of smartphones that are involved in crime situations, at a total cost of $155,000 a year. The sheriff’s training budget will also go up about $150,000.

Firefighters will get new breathing apparatus, $558,000 and new radios, $254,000.

Elections

Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman is in line for several budget increases to pay costs for the 2020 presidential election, including: $418,000 for temporary employees, $28,000 for expanding early voting, $27,000 for contractual costs, and $2,200 to open a new advance voting site in Park City.

Senior services

The need for more senior services has risen as increasing numbers of baby boomers age into their retirement years, Stolz said.

The budget recommends a $60,000 increase for senior nutrition in rural parts of the county.

“We have a fairly robust meals on wheels program within the city (of Wichita) but we saw a gap outside the city,” Stolz said. “We are recommending increased funding to take care of those seniors.”

The budget plan also includes a $17,600 increase for senior centers.

How to be heard

County commissioners have scheduled a series of opportunities for the public to give input into the budget process, including:

An online public hearing at www.sedgwickcounty.org. The comment period started Wednesday and runs through 5 p.m. Aug. 6

Live public hearings in the county commission chamber at the county courthouse, 525 N. Main, Wichita, 9 a.m. July 24 and 6 p.m. Aug. 5.

The last chance to comment will be on the day the budget is scheduled for final adoption, Aug. 7. Although it’s not formally a public hearing, residents will be able to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. in the commission chamber.

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